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From Chennai to Paris: A randonneur’s journey

A Raj Kumar

A Raj Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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When he bought his first cycle in 2016, A Rajkumar had not given a thought to randonneuring. Three years later, he is among the few Indians to have completed the 1,200-kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris endurance event

Of all the reasons one could think of for getting on a bicycle, A Rajkumar’s was a relatively straightforward one. In 2016, weighing over 100 kilograms, the then 23-year-old thought he should reconnect with the bicycle — something he had given up on since his school days — to work on his fitness.

“I tried to lose weight by going to the gym but then I injured my shoulder lifting weights,” he says, sitting in his home in Sholinganallur. He quit the gym, went to the nearest cycle dealer and bought himself an entry-level mountain bike (MTB) — “the one with fatter tyres,” he adds — for around ₹13,000. This was in April. By September 2016, he was a Super Randonneur (SR).

More popular in the West, randonneuring is the sport of long-distance cycling that involves cyclists pushing the limits of endurance to mind-boggling levels simply because they can.

A Raj Kumar

A Raj Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In order to be awarded an SR medal, a cyclist must complete a series of brevets (rides that cover distances of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres) within a calendar year.

Ride of a lifetime

What makes Rajkumar’s story something of an outlier is that he constantly upended norms on his journey.

Like when he rode his entry-level MTB all the way to earning his SR medal, or when he lived his dream by competing in the 2019 Paris-Brest-Paris (the oldest and most prestigious endurance cycling event in the world) in August, becoming the fastest Indian to the finish line in the 90-hour category (the race happens in 80, 84 and 90-hour categories) ahead of people like actor Arya and his team.

A Raj Kumar with his Paris-Brest-Paris 2019 medal

A Raj Kumar with his Paris-Brest-Paris 2019 medal   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“He (Arya) couldn’t complete. His team (Ryders: Team Jammy) had to quit because the weather was quite tough,” he says.

An MPhil in Plant Biology and Biotechnology, Rajkumar says he had no clue about brevets when he bought his first cycle. “I was also very sceptical. But the cycling group at the place where I bought the cycle from, persuaded me to give it a try,” he says.

With just a few short-distance practice rides under his belt, he took part in his first 200-kilometre brevet (Velachery-Marakkanam-Padur) in June 2016.

“I had no idea about nutrition or the headwinds on East Cost Road, and generally how difficult it was going to be. I was just a fat guy riding a bicycle,” he adds.

A Raj Kumar with locals he met during his Paris-Brest-Paris ride

A Raj Kumar with locals he met during his Paris-Brest-Paris ride   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At the 121-kilometre mark, he remembers reaching out to his bag, and using the anti-inflammation spray for muscle cramps all over his body “as if it was body spray”.

He did make it to the finish line eventually. “My hands and legs were numb. I called my friend to come pick me up, and I went home that day thinking that long distance cycling was not for me,” he says.

But that is not how this story turned out because Raj Kumar, as it happened, finished the brevet ahead of seasoned cyclists from his group riding more expensive, purpose-built cycles. “They planted the idea that if I could finish 200 kilometres so fast... then maybe I should try 300 as well,” he adds.

Spirit of endurance

Thereafter, there was no turning back. The many brevets he partook in, the better timings he posted, and soon he started treating 600 kilometre brevets like rides to the neighbourhood grocer’s.

A Raj Kumar

A Raj Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Through all this, he kept his family in the dark about what he was upto; they discovered Rajkumar’s potential only after he earned his SR medal.

“I would never inform my family that I was going on these brevets. All they knew was that I was going on cycling trips with friends, and that we will be renting a room to sleep when it is nightfall,” he says. Which is never the case in randonneuring because sleep is the biggest deterrent to reaching checkpoints within a time frame.

“We take power naps for 10-20 minutes, especially in the 600, 1,000 and 1,200 kilometre brevets. Managing your sleep is essential,” says Rajkumar, who calls sleeping for a period of 45 minutes during brevets as entering “deep sleep mode”.

In France though, it was the chilly weather more than the lack of sleep that proved challenging. “The temperature dropped to two degrees Celsius. The cold was unbearable. Even five layers of clothing would not have helped,” he says.

A Raj Kumar

A Raj Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Despite the odds, he managed to complete the race in 81 hours. “I could have been faster. I crashed around the 900 kilometre mark, and it set me back a bit,” he adds.

Cycling finds few takers in this country because Indian roads are unsafe. Rajkumar agrees, but in Paris, he was pleasantly taken aback by what he witnessed.

“France is unlike any other country on the planet. That country loves cycles and cycling, and the respect they show for cyclists is unreal. All vehicles maintain 1.5 metre gap if a cyclist is ahead of them, and there are dedicated cycling lanes. There is even space for cycles inside Metro trains,” says Rajkumar, adding that, despite road safety concerns, he is noticing Indian interest in randonneuring picking up.

“I was told that there were only 50 Indians in PBP 2015. This year, there were about 350 Indians and 46 finished the event, including eight from Chennai.”

What next? “I have set my sights on the London randonnée (London-Edinburgh-London brevet) for July 2021. It is a bigger challenge since they have extended the distance to 1,500 kilometres this time.”

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 8:18:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/from-chennai-to-paris-a-randonneurs-journey/article29499430.ece

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